Friday, 19 August 2011

'Viking Dead' - Toby Venables

Viking Dead is a book I heard about from another book review blog, none other than Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. He did not actually review Viking Dead, just mentioned it in passing. I quite liked the cover, those zombie vikings look really menacing. Should not judge a book by its cover though, let's move on the the blurb. For some reason or another the crew of a viking ship find themselves stranded in a bleak and pestilent land. If that's not bad enough, their dead awake and turn on them, biting and gnashing! Then there is a rumour of a dark castle in a hidden fjord. Maybe I'm easily pleased, but that blurb is pleasing to the eye. Abaddon Books kindly sent me a book to review.

Atli, a boy, or young man, is out gathering fire wood. The mist is thick over the water and he cannot see much, but he can hear a rhythmic sound of something breaking the surface. The great head and neck of a dragon looms out of the mist. The vikings are here.

His father is a miserable drunk and life in the village seems rather dull and miserable right now. While the vikings are raiding, Alti decides he has had enough and stows away on their boat. The raid does not go as planned, someone has beaten them to the prize. Bjolf, the leader of the vikings, is then forced to make a tough decision. Grimmsson and his crew of raiders spot them and charge towards them, swords in hand. Bjolf has no choice but to flee back to their ship, there is no way they can beat a force twice as large. Once back on board their ship Bjolf discovers their stow away, Atli. First Bjolf is furious, but his second in command reminds him of that Bjolf was not much older himself when he left his home to join his uncle on a raid. The boy is accepted as a member of the crew. Atli is now a viking.

Bjolf is still not quite sure exactly where they are. There was a great storm raging while they made their escape and they have lost their bearings. After many days at sea a raven lands on the ship. This can only mean one thing, land is nearby. They make landfall close to a village with a wall around it. The place looks  desserted, not a trace of anyone outside the wall. The men could use to sleep on solid ground so Bjolf and his party make their presence known outside the gate. After some suspicion the gates are opened, but this is when it goes weird. There is no lord of the manor, instead it is a beautiful young woman who throws herself around Bjolf's neck and thanks him for finally coming. Something is clearly amiss, yet Bjolf and his crew decides to accept the hospitality of the village. A feast is being prepared, tonight they will feast on mead and beer.

During the feast Bjolf lets slip that he left some men on the boat to keep vigil of their dead. Halldis, the lady of the manor, appears shocked when she hears this. She demands that the dead must be burned. This not according to the viking custom and Bjolf in turn is shocked and outraged. He is not sure what to think when Halldis explains that there is a curse, and any deceased will rise again as a draugr, a living dead. He is however, about to become very convinced of their existence.

Toby Venables' Viking Dead is a stunningly well written book. This not so much a review, it’s more a report of the greatness of Viking Dead. I really liked the first part of the book, where the existence of zombies is still in doubt. Our heroes encounter sign after sign of the undead, but nothing concrete enough to convince Bjolf and the majority of the crew. During this part of the book, the suspense is built little by little until I found myself holding my breath in anticipation of the inevitable arrival of the zombie horde. This is long before they even do any zombie bashing! There will be plenty of that to come later on in the book.

Atli is my favorite character in the book. I wont describe him as the most important character in the book, but I found him the most interesting. Possibly because he has a different view of events. He is not quite part of the view, so he is watching it from the sidelines. It was great reading about how he step by step was accepted by the crew. Viking Dead is maybe surprisingly a great story about camaraderie and a tale of a boy becoming a man. Found it both convincing and endearing, as endearing as something can be in such a grim tale packed with the undead. The other characters are all well written and have that so important feel of life to them. I quickly started to feel attached to the different members of the crew.
"Ah, give the boy a proper weapom," called the giant with a laugh. "He's one of us now!" The words gave Atli an instant glow of pride - so much so that in his distraction he almost drove the knife into his palm. He hoped no one noticed.
The world building was another thing that impressed me in Viking Dead. He must have done research on vikings and even managed to avoid the biggest trope of all, the horned helmets. Toby Venables setting is a very grim and dark one. I almost shivered because of all the cold damp mist and stormy weather, then I really shivered when things got scary.
As Bjolf looked on, a strange feeling of disgust rising in him, the man's skin seemed to constantly shimmer and shift in the sunlight, as if it were bubbling.
The only negative I have regarding Viking Dead is that I don't know if there will be a second part. I will be most upset if there wont be another book. Or two.

Viking Dead charges with berseker fury straight to the top of my Best of 2011 list. The other books tries to resist, but with little regard for its own safety and some well aimed blows from its battle axe, there is no stopping Viking Dead. I'm truly impressed with Viking Dead and the goose bumps inspiring ending just blew me away, please let there be a second part.

Viking Dead weighs in at 352 pages and is published by Abaddon Books.

Recommendation: must read


  1. I really enjoyed this as well. Still as fun as the premise should be, but well-written with some really lovely layers of meaning. Venables seems a smart guy with a wicked sense of humor. Looking forward to more books from him.

  2. Hi Jared,

    Lovely to see you over at I Will Read Books!

    Watch this space for more about Mr Venables :)